book review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt



SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE by Sarah Schmidt
Grove Atlantic, August 1, 2017

Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks; when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one. In Fall River Massachusetts, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were gruesomely murdered, and Lizzie (daughter of Andrew; stepdaughter of Abby) was charged with the crime before eventually being acquitted. In See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt gives a fictionalized account of the Borden murders, one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in American history.

I love true crime, I love fictionalizations of real people and real historical events… all things considered I was really excited for this book.

Unfortunately I didn’t like a single thing about it.

This isn’t eerie and twisted and sinister like I was hoping it would be… it’s mainly gross? And I mean, really, really gross. I think the author uses a lot of these disgusting descriptions to try to shock a visceral reaction out of the reader, and I don’t have a lot of patience for that. What’s so shocking about vomit or pieces of mutton in some man’s beard? Nothing, really, it just creates an atmosphere I have no interest spending any time in. It was such a struggle to pick this book back up every time I put it down. I very seriously considered DNFing this book at 85% because I just couldn’t gather the motivation to push through. I ended up skimming through to the end.

I thought See What I Have Done read like a first draft – a very rough, underdeveloped first draft. The structure of this novel is confusing and hard to follow; the prose is jarring and the pace is odd and uneven. It was kind of like trying to walk through a path in the forest that hasn’t been manicured, and constantly tripping over roots and branches, i.e., frustrating, painful, and more time consuming than it needs to be. The prose gets rather experimental at times, especially in the chapters told from Lizzie’s point of view; e.g., “the clock ticked ticked,” which I think was meant to be evocative and unsettling, but for me it served only to irritate. Here’s another example:

“I thought of Father, my stomach growled hunger and I went to the pail of water by the well, let my hands sink into the cool sip sip.”

I’m sorry but this just did not work for me.

All of the characters were rather loathsome, but not in a particularly intriguing way. This is a book about truly repulsive people who act a fraction of their age, and it gets old fast. I didn’t care about Lizzie, I didn’t care about Andrew and Abby Borden, I didn’t really care about Lizzie’s sister Emma… the only character who was even remotely sympathetic to me was the maid, Bridget, but her few point of view chapters (complete with dialogue that includes a truly horrendous transcription of the Irish accent) weren’t enough to hold my interest.

One star seems harsh, especially given that I am clearly in the minority here, but I just… didn’t like this book. At all. I really wish I could have seen in this book what so many other people seem to. All I can say is that if you’re interested in the premise (and have a strong stomach) I encourage you to give it a shot, because you never know. No two people ever read the same book, I guess!

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Netgalley, Grove Atlantic, and Sarah Schmidt for the opportunity. Quotes taken from an ARC and may be edited before publication.

20 thoughts on “book review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

  1. Wow I had no idea this was actually based on a true story until you said it was true crime. It sounds like it should be interesting but it’s such a shame you didn’t end up enjoying it. Won’t bother reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I always hope that if authors see my more negative reviews they’ll understand that there’s nothing personal in my criticism; I’m just in the habit of being as honest as possible about my experiences with each book I read. I’m disappointed this one didn’t work for me but it seems like plenty of others are loving it, so that’s good.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That prose………is atrocious. It reminds of that post I reblogged on Tumblr about how people write poetry. Trying to be cool and weird and failing seriously hard.

    It sucks that such a beautiful and well-titled book about such a fascinating topic is so terrible.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Right???? I don’t have a lot of patience for experimental prose. Sometimes it works and the result is spectacular (e.g. Bright Air Black by David Vann was stunning), but far too often it’s just awkward and trying to seem edgier than it is.

      I was so disappointed, I’d been looking forward to reading this for ages and have long been interested in Lizzie Borden. I’m having to remind myself now that Sarah Schmidt’s account of her character isn’t definitive, as it was nearly bad enough to put me off her altogether.


  3. Hehe! You did better than me, and were kinder! I abandoned it at 2%, just after the ‘sip sip’ sentence. Ugh! What’s wrong with just telling a great story using language the normal way??

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember being apprehensive after seeing your review but I vowed to give it a fair shot anyway. More fool me. You made the right call to DNF at 2% – it just got worse from there. I’ve seen so many reviews lauding the ‘gorgeous prose’ and I just don’t get it?!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I knew what this book was about and was interested, but for some reason I had a feeling it might be terrible?? I don’t know why, but it doesn’t surprise me. But this took place near where I live so I’m pretty familiar with this story, so it’s disappointing that it wasn’t fictionalized and written well! I’d love a good account of it. And it’s a shame because I love the cover and the title.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Whatever sixth sense told you to stay away was absolutely right. Ugh, it was so bad. This is one of those books that I was on the fence about picking up, but I’d seen nothing but good reviews from my Goodreads friend list so I went ahead and requested it on Netgalley. I made a horrible mistake. I want those hours of my life back. The title and cover are so good, it’s such a waste 😦 That’s so cool that you live near there, is the house a historical site that you can visit?

      Liked by 1 person

      • They do! I think it’s just called the Lizzie Borden house and I believe it is a bed and breakfast. I’ve seen so many ghost shows go and investigate it, lol.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you!

      I’m actually not sure that true crime is the correct classification, because it’s definitely a fictionalization rather than a factual account, but it is based off a real crime, and the author draws on a lot of nonfiction sources to craft her narrative. But anyway, I find the real crime to be a lot more interesting than Sarah Schmidt’s account of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The premise sounds super intriguing, but I understand why you rated it as you did.I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it. Thanks for an honest and in-depth review. I just stumbled upon your blog, and I absolutely love it!

    I’m new to blogging and book reviewing, and I was wondering if you had any tips for newbie bloggers and book reviewers.

    If you have the time, please check out my blog @breenysbooks. I’d love any feedback. Have a wonderful day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much!

      I’ve had a look at your blog and I think you’re doing great! Actually, a lot of the advice I’d give to newbies doesn’t apply to you, e.g.: having a blog layout that’s clean and easy to navigate is key (yours is fantastic!), make sure to have a review policy and to be clear on whether you’re accepting review requests (done!), keep most of your posts book oriented, as that is your reader base after all, but including some more personal posts like tags and awards definitely helps keep your blog fun and approachable (which I see you already do!). As for the reviews themselves, my biggest review pet peeve is when the majority of the review is restating the book summary, but I’ve had a look at some of yours and I love what you do by separating the summary from your thoughts. That way readers can skip the first part and dive straight into your review if they’re already familiar with the book.

      The only thing I can think of, and you may already do this, is to tag the hell out of everything. I usually tag all of my posts with ‘book blog, book blogger, book bloggers, book review, book reviews, genre, title, author, fiction, adult fiction.’ Participating in Top 5 Wednesday is also a good way to get followers, as you can link your post to the Goodreads group each week – I usually get quite a few hits each Wednesday from doing that.

      Otherwise, just have fun! If blogging is something you do as a hobby on top of school or work, it shouldn’t be more stressful than it needs to be. Just be yourself, read the books you want to read, write the reviews you want to write, and have a good time getting to know fellow bookworms.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh dear, it’s a shame to hear you disliked this one so much! I am really looking forward to reading this one personally, but we’ll see how it goes. I’m an extremely fussy reader so I might just get annoyed with the prose like you did, but I’m looking forward to at least giving it a shot!

    Liked by 1 person

    • As I said, I definitely think a lot of it boiled down to my personal incompatibility with the style – it was a difficult one to criticize on an objective level since in many ways I think Sarah Schmidt did achieve what she set out to do. I just didn’t enjoy it. So I hope you fare better with it! I had really been looking forward to reading it as well, so it was a massive letdown. I’ll be very curious to see what you think.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. […] 2. See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt.  This whole maddeningly insufferable book is written like this: “I thought of Father, my stomach growled hunger and I went to the pail of water by the well, let my hands sink into the cool sip sip.”  I can’t believe I actually made it through this whole thing.  It’s also the most viscerally disgusting book I’ve ever read – graphic descriptions of vomit and rotten mutton abound.  Sarah Schmidt takes one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in American history – the Borden murders of 1892 Massachusetts – and fictionalizes this story for… some reason that I fail to understand.  I truly do not get the point of this book.  It isn’t entertaining, it isn’t informative, it renders Lizzie as downright pathetic… I don’t know what I was supposed to take away from this book, but it was probably supposed to be something other than the frustration and nausea I was left with.  Full review HERE. […]


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